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Biology LibreTexts

20.7: Energy and Energy Flow

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  • Learning Objectives

    • Describe how organisms acquire energy in a food web and in associated food chains
    • Explain how the efficiency of energy transfers between trophic levels affects ecosystem structure and dynamics

    Trophic interactions in a community can be represented by diagrams called food chains and food webs. Before discussing these representations in detail, we must first review the basics of energy. Energy flows through a community as a result of trophic interactions.


    Virtually every task performed by living organisms requires energy. In general, energy is defined as the ability to do work, or to create some kind of change. Energy exists in different forms. Examples include light energy, kinetic energy, heat energy, potential energy, and chemical energy.

    When an object is in motion, there is energy associated with that object. Think of a wrecking ball. Even a slow-moving wrecking ball can do a great deal of damage to other objects. Energy associated with objects in motion is called kinetic energy. Heat energy is the energy of motion in matter (anything that takes up space and has mass) and is considered a type of kinetic energy. The warmer the substance, the faster its molecules are moving. The rapid movement of molecules in the air, a speeding bullet, and a walking person all have kinetic energy. Now what if that same motionless wrecking ball is lifted two stories above ground with a crane? If the suspended wrecking ball is not moving, is there energy associated with it? The answer is yes. The energy that was required to lift the wrecking ball did not disappear, but is now stored in the wrecking ball by virtue of its position and the force of gravity acting on it. This type of energy is called potential energy. If the ball were to fall, the potential energy would be transformed into kinetic energy until all of the potential energy was exhausted when the ball rested on the ground. Wrecking balls also swing like a pendulum; through the swing, there is a constant change of potential energy (highest at the top of the swing) to kinetic energy (highest at the bottom of the swing). Other examples of potential energy include the energy of water held behind a dam or a person about to skydive out of an airplane (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\).

    A dam with water being held back; a waterfall
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Still water has potential energy; moving water, such as in a waterfall or a rapidly flowing river, has kinetic energy. (credit “dam”: modification of work by “Pascal”/Flickr; credit “waterfall”: modification of work by Frank Gualtieri)

    Potential energy is not only associated with the location of matter, but also with the structure of matter. On a molecular level, there is potential energy stored within the bonds holding together the atoms in the food molecules we eat. The type of potential energy that exists within chemical bonds, and is released when those bonds are broken, is called chemical energy. Chemical energy is responsible for providing living cells with energy from food.

    To appreciate the way energy flows into and out of biological systems, it is important to understand two of the physical laws that govern energy. The first law of thermodynamics states that the total amount of energy in the universe is constant and conserved. In other words, there has always been, and always will be, exactly the same amount of energy in the universe. Energy exists in many different forms. According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy may be transferred from place to place or transformed into different forms, but it cannot be created or destroyed. The transfers and transformations of energy take place around us all the time. Light bulbs transform electrical energy into light and heat energy. Gas stoves transform chemical energy from natural gas into heat energy. Plants perform one of the most biologically useful energy transformations on earth: that of converting the energy of sunlight to chemical energy stored within biological molecules, such as sugars (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\).

    An ice cream cone gives energy to boys on bikes; The sun gives energy to a leaf
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Shown are some examples of energy transferred and transformed from one system to another and from one form to another. The food we consume, represented by the ice cream cone, provides our cells with the chemical energy required to carry out bodily functions. This can be converted into kinetic energy (the energy of motion), which would be needed to ride a bike. Leaves conduct photosynthesis, converting light energy from the sun to chemical energy. (credit “ice cream”: modification of work by D. Sharon Pruitt; credit “kids”: modification of work by Max from Providence; credit “leaf”: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

    The challenge for all living organisms is to obtain energy from their surroundings in forms that are usable to perform cellular work. A living cell’s primary tasks of obtaining, transforming, and using energy to do work may seem simple. However, the second law of thermodynamics explains why these tasks are harder than they appear. All energy transfers and transformations are never completely efficient. In every energy transfer, some amount of energy is lost in a form that is unusable. In most cases, this form is heat energy. For example, when a light bulb is turned on, some of the energy being converted from electrical energy into light energy is lost as heat energy. Likewise, some energy is lost as heat energy during the metabolic reactions that occur in organisms.

    The concept of order and disorder relates to the second law of thermodynamics. The more energy that is lost by a system to its surroundings, the less ordered and more random the system is. Scientists refer to the measure of randomness or disorder within a system as entropy. High entropy means high disorder and low energy. Living things are highly ordered, requiring constant energy input to be maintained in a state of low entropy.

    Energy Flow

    Cells run on the chemical energy found mainly in carbohydrate molecules, and the majority of these molecules are produced by one process: photosynthesis. Through photosynthesis, certain organisms convert solar energy (sunlight) into chemical energy, which is then used to build carbohydrate molecules. The energy that is harnessed from photosynthesis enters the communities continuously and is transferred from one organism to another. Therefore, directly or indirectly, the process of photosynthesis provides most of the energy required by living things on Earth.

    Organisms that conduct photosynthesis (such as plants, algae, and some bacteria), and organisms that synthesize sugars through other means are called producers. Without these organisms, energy would not be available to other living organisms, and life would not be possible. Consumers, like animals, fungi, and various microorganisms depend on producers, either directly or indirectly. For example, a deer obtains energy by eating plants. A wolf eating a deer obtains energy that originally came from the plants eaten by that deer (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\). Using this reasoning, all food eaten by humans can be traced back to producers that carry out photosynthesis (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)). Dead producers and consumers are eaten by detritivores (which ingest on dead tissues) and decomposers (which further break down these tissues into simple molecules by secreting digestive enzymes). Invertebrate animals, such as worms and millipedes, are examples of detritivores, whereas fungi and certain bacteria are examples decomposers.

    Deer running quickly through vegetation
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The energy stored in carbohydrate molecules from photosynthesis passes through the food chain. The predator that eats these deer is getting energy that originated in the photosynthetic vegetation that the deer consumed. (credit: Steve VanRiper, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
    Flow chart demonstrating energy transfer from the sun to producers to consumers.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Ultimately, most life forms get their energy from the sun. This flow chart shows energy from the sun being captured by producers, such as plants, through photosynthesis. The energy is transferred to the consumers of the producers, such as animals. Energy can be obtained from producers directly (herbivores eat plants) or indirectly (carnivores eat herbivores). Decomposers eventually breakdown of dead organisms, including plant and animal material, and contribute to the nutrient pool. Fungi and bacteria are decomposers, and worms are detritivores (not shown).


    Modified by Kammy Algiers from the following sources: Food Chains and Food Webs - from Biology by OpenStax (licensed CC-BY)

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